Ravens-49ers Super Bowl perfect way to end imperfect NFL season
The climax to one of the National Football League’s most schizophrenic, good-news/bad-news seasons is a mere hours away.
America’s annual monument to excess – aka Super Bowl XLVII – kicks off at 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, here at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Before we begin to set up the monumental clash between John and Jim Harbaugh – oh, and the one between the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers and AFC’s Baltimore Ravens to determine the league’s 93rd champion, too – let’s take a quick look back at how we got here.
At all the headline-hogging off-field news that captivated us, impressed us, angered us, saddened us and, some of the time, bored us to tears.
Seen enough? Right. Back to the game.
Sorry, not so fast …
Can’t blame you there, but we’ve got to take quick stock. So many of the 2012 stories that dominated not only sports-page but front-page headlines are not likely to go away in 2013 – or beyond.
Can-Peyton-still-play?, Why-can’t-Payton-coach? and We-want-the-real-refs-back! were one-time deals. So, hopefully, was the rest of the bountygate mess – and Tim Tebow’s circus maximus, too.
Among the good news? All those dynamic rookie quarterbacks. And Peyton Manning’s and Adrian Peterson’s remarkable comebacks. And skyrocketing TV ratings, reflective of the fact the game never has been so popular – both north and south of the border.
Trumping everything, though, is this: We will be reading evermore frequently in the years to come about player safety, and all the sub-stories that fall under this crucial umbrella – such as the diagnosis and effects of concussions, ex-player class-action suits against the league, heart-wrenching tragedies of former players such as Junior Seau, rules changes, the fines and suspensions of defenders, and so forth.
Get used to it, folks.
Most disappointingly of all, the NFL and its players union (the NFLPA) will continue to fight. Relations are so poor between the sides, despite signing a 10-year CBA only a year-and-a-half ago, that it was inconceivable their leaders – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith – could ever share a stage together the way both Harbaugh brothers did on Friday morning, as rival head coaches in Sunday’s game.
The NFL and NFLPA both are so quick to poke the other in the eye whenever a court decision, or news morsel, even remotely supports one of its hardened stances, that Moe Howard would have been envious.
The future of the game at the pro level – perhaps even its long-term survival in a form we all recognize and cherish – must navigate around the towering, jagged icebergs formed by this Arctic-cold relationship.
Enough of that. Back to the NFL’s second most combative confrontation we’ll see between now and the start of preseason games in August.
The Super Bowl.
Intangibles will play a part, as they always do. They favour the Ravens.
Indeed, there’s no bigger one in this game than the emotional impact the retiring Ray Lewis has had over the past month on his Baltimore Ravens teammates.
Virtually every Ravens player and coach has talked this week about the team-wide boost the star linebacker’s return from a triceps injury has had, and his swan-song push to, as he says, “feel the confetti.”
Lewis is not the only veteran player who might be donning shoulder pads for the last time on Sunday. Niners wide receiver Randy Moss, Baltimore’s perennial all-pro safety Ed Reed and his teammate, centre Matt Birk, might follow Lewis out the door.
“The level of wisdom and talent and leadership that we have, it’s a real great thing to have on our team,” Lewis said of his Ravens. “And that’s why I think our team is so focused right now.”
But, as the old saying goes, the motivational impact from pre-game speeches or field-entry dances lasts for about five minutes in any game. Then it’s all about the X’s and O’s, and Jimmys and Joes.
Jimmy and John (Harbaugh) are expert at the former. General managers Trent Baalke (Niners) and Ozzie Newsome (Ravens) have been brilliant at the latter.
For instance, after the 2011 season, did any NFL team go about (1) plugging its holes of need and (2) finding creative ways to retain all of its potential free agents better than the Niners’ Baalke? No.
What the Niners lacked: a playmaking deep-threat wide receiver, and a better playmaking quarterback. The signing of Moss in March filled the first need better than most believed possible.
Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin told me this week that the 35-year-old Moss’ presence still stretches a defence: “He can still run, so you’ve got to make sure he doesn’t get over the top on ya.”
Just as importantly, on and off the field Moss has helped fourth-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree blossom from an underachieving ornament last season into a dangerous weapon this season.
“They’re moving Crabtree around to get favourable matchups, and he’s catching the ball like crazy,” Austin said.
But, as everybody knows, the most intriguing on-field storyline for this game is the cutting-edge schematic edge the Niners have had since the playoffs began.
That is, their sudden heavy reliance on, and big-play success from, all those read-option plays from pistol formations. In 16 regular-season games the Niners used the pistol 7% of the time – 70 of 969 snaps. In two playoff victories they’ve employed it half the time.
And all because of the killer dual-threat talents of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who makes only his 10th career start in the Super Bowl.
“It’s amazing. He was the backup quarterback a couple of months ago,” 49ers centre Jonathan Goodwin said. “Now he is the guy that’s going up on the walls in stadiums.”
Not nearly enough credit goes to offensive coordinator Greg Roman for both Kaepernick’s development, and the Niners’ astute implementation of those pistol plays. Jim Harbaugh calls Roman the best coordinator in the NFL. Few can dispute that.
One of the little-discussed advantages of Roman’s pistol plays is all the motioning he employs. A tight end or a fullback often either motions into the backfield at the last moment – sometimes creating the four-man, inverted-wishbone backfield formation the Niners call ‘Brutus’ – or out of it.
“We’re always just trying to keep the defence guessing,” tight end Garrett Celek told me. “A lot of the motion is for deception. We just don’t want the defence to get any kind of idea what we’re doing. When they think they’ve got it, they don’t.
“We know exactly what we’re doing. We practise it, especially having the two weeks for this one. We’ve been able to prepare a lot for this one.”
The new Niners offence is so novel, and so lethal from both running and passing standpoints, Celek said, he agreed that it’s as if there are eight holes of water pouring into a defence’s boat, and they’ve got only five fingers to plug them with.
“That’s why this is working,” he said. “You can tell in the last few games: D-coordinators really don’t have an answer for it. It’s kind of exciting to see what they do to try to stop it.”
The Ravens defensive coaches have had the same two weeks to game-plan for this game. They’ve already bottled up Peyton Manning, and shut down Tom Brady. Seems likely they’ll at least figure out a way to plug Kaepernick’s pistol enough to stay close.
So it could all come down to how effective quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens offence can be. Before the playoffs, Flacco was underachieving. In three playoff games, the 28-year-old has been on fire – eight TD passes, no interceptions, 114.7 passer rating.
A Super win and Flacco might actually get the $20 million per season some are saying his agent will demand from the Ravens.
As for the smart money men in Vegas, they say the Niners will win Super Bowl XLVII – they’re 3.5-point favourites. For whatever you think that’s worth.
Which brings us to the “Har-bowl” – North American pro sports’ first ever championship game matchup of head-coaching brothers. One will be euphoric afterward; the other will be devastated.
Perhaps that’s the perfect way to end one of the NFL’s most imperfect, bi-polar seasons.